American Sniper

American Sniper may be the most divisive film of the year. Acclaimed by some critics as a powerful and brutal portrayal of war, it has also received criticism from others for its seemingly patriotic tone and overly simplistic portrayal of the Iraq war. But does this wildly successful ($264 million worldwide in only a few weeks) deserve to be praised or criticized?

Based on the autobiography of Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in US history, the film initially follows his pre-war years through a series of flashbacks that briefly cover his troubled childhood and failed ambitions to be a cowboy. News coverage of 9/11 is briefly shown and then it cuts to Kyle (Bradley Cooper) signing up to the marines. This is the first major problem with the film, as it creates the sense that the Iraq War was an immediate reaction to the terrorist attacks, which most people know it wasn't. The film is clearly rushing to get to the war scenes so his relationship with Taya (Sienna Miller) and his Marines training is just too brief and overlooked. Eastwood's blunt and simplistic directing style is obvious in these sections and a disadvantage here. However, the sniping scenes are impressive, excellently shot with fantastic sound design. The film is comparable to The Hurt Locker (2008), with little music and stunning cinematography. While Kyle becomes a war hero in Iraq, at home Taya is feeling increasingly lonely and wants Chris to return to the US.

Bradley Cooper is excellent as Kyle and has proved his worth as a serious actor, escaping from his lacklustre comic roles and instead earning Oscar nominations. He handles both the war scenes and the personal scenes with deadly seriousness and is very convincing, also pulling off Kyle's Texas accent well. Sienna Miller also impresses as his long suffering wife and is very emotionally invested in the role. Eastwood shows off his skills in the sniping sections and to his credit the film is well made. Sadly, American Sniper is a tonal mess and stiflingly patriotic. Whereas there is plenty of focus on the injured American soldiers, the film has absolutely no focus on the many civilians injured throughout the film. There are plenty of opportunities to show the distraught wives as their husbands are slaughtered by soldiers on both sides of the conflict, but instead Eastwood chooses to cut straight back to Kyle and his "heroic" actions. 

The notorious Iraqi sniper, known as Mustafa, becomes Kyle's enemy and the standoffs between them are particularly dramatic. However, in reality Kyle never even encountered Mustafa, only mentioning him once in the book. This is an outrageous deviation from the truth and an almost completely fictional central character in a biographical film is completely unacceptable. This is a prime example of Hollywood dumbing down their films to the wider audience, who seem to require huge signs signalling who the bad guy is and the American war effort made to look completely justified and humane. The Hurt Locker had moral dilemmas and showed the harsh effects of war on the central characters. This lacks any of that depth and it is worse off for it.

Technically applaudable but overly simplistic and morally blind, American Sniper has a problem with not being able to question its subject matter and at times can even feel like a Fox News documentary. While most will never agree over the film's message, I am amazed this was nominated for the best picture Oscar over Foxcatcher, which does actually stay true to its subject matter and have incredible depth to it.